I love Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels like pizza — the best and the worst pizza are still pizza, my favorite food. I have now read all eleven novels — and I think you have to read them in order — and “The Other Side of Silence” is one of the better. Set in the Riviera and Germany both before and after WWII, the subject is blackmail and the addition is the fictional characterization of the famed English gay novelist and spy Somerset Maugham. The Painted Veil is one of my favorite Maugham books (and was made into an underappreciated movie with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts).
Although I don’t want to fight with blurbs, which may have been taken out of context, Salon’s Jonathan Ames makes the bogus bold statement that “Philip Kerr is the only bona fide heir to Raymond Chandler.” Yes, his Bernie Gunther is a hard-boiled detective but the early books were marred by Chandleresque prose that tried to hard. Long ago, Kerr hit his stride.
I love Chandler, don’t get me wrong. But Kerr has outgrown his infatuation to write really fine original prose, like this passage when an aging yet still virile Gunther has just been dumped by the femme fatale with whom he’s fallen in love: “In a way I’d seen it coming and been stupid enough to ignore what my keener senses had already told me. Not that it really counted for very much in the scheme of things. It was nothing more than just another tragedy in a long line of tragedies of the kind Bernie Gunther was already well used to. If anyone had the constitution to take it on the chin, that person was him, I told myself. Maybe that’s what all human ordinary life amounts to. One tragedy heaped on top of another like sharp gray layers of shale.”
Great writing — and notice the first-person narrator shifting into a third person reference to himself to show how disconnected he is to his own external identity. He is, at this time, living under an assumed name and trying and failing to achieve some sort of stability that will forever elude him.
Unlike Chandler, Kerr’s books are heavily researched and rich with WWII history (in that way he is like Alan Furst). Chandler’s weren’t historical fiction. And, given Kerr’s eleven books that shift back and forth and time, we have seen Gunther struggle with personal and historical events — including Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazism — over many decades.
If there is one thing, from a novelist’s perspective, that annoys me in the style is Kerr’s overuse of dialog for exposition — characters often talk with Kerr holding the microphone too close, and the exchanges go on for too long when prose would have been more natural. But that’s a writer’s quibble. This is an enjoyable and interesting read, and if you’re a Kerr addict like me, you pre-order. If you’re just starting out on this wonderful road, begin here with Berlin Noir: March Violets / The Pale Criminal / A German Requiem. And, if you just can’t get enough, skip over to the great historical spy novelist Alan Furst, where it’s less important to read in order. Among my favorites is The Polish Officer or Night Soldiers.